Watergate Remembered, After a Fashion

By Dana Milbank
Saturday, April 1, 2006

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) was only 16 years old when burglars broke into Democratic headquarters at the Watergate, but yesterday he got to play Sam Ervin questioning Nixon counsel John Dean in a Senate hearing room.

"Did you ever believe there was a legal basis for the president of the United States to break into the Democratic national headquarters?" Graham demanded of Dean.

"Nixon didn't authorize the break-in," pointed out Dean, who had come to testify about why President Bush should be censured for his wiretapping program.

"Oh, he didn't?" Lindsey continued. "Okay, so did you authorize it?"

"No, I did not," Dean replied.

"Did you know about it?"

"No, I did not."

After more ineffectual questioning, the old scofflaw taunted Graham: "You're showing you don't know that subject very well."

Spectators laughed, and soon the senator was sputtering mad. "That's why you went to jail!" Graham finally blurted out.

Yesterday's hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee was ostensibly about a resolution by Sen. Russell Feingold (D-Wis.) to censure Bush over warrantless wiretapping. But Feingold's own Democratic colleagues weren't terribly enthusiastic -- Edward M. Kennedy (Mass.), Joseph R. Biden Jr. (Del.), Dianne Feinstein (Calif.), Charles E. Schumer (N.Y.) and Richard J. Durbin (Ill.) were all no-shows -- and the grass-roots groundswell failed to materialize. Just 47 of the 162 public seats in the room were occupied when the hearing began; 25 were occupied when it ended three hours later.

Instead, Feingold's invitation to Dean -- who spent four months in prison for his role in the Watergate conspiracy -- turned the session into a badly staged Watergate reenactment. Thirty-three years ago, Dean's cooperation with Ervin's panel helped to bring down Richard Nixon. Yesterday, a white-haired Dean tried to do something similar to Bush.

Feingold started off with a bit of rehabilitation of Dean, who paid the Watergate burglars hush money. Feingold called him a "patriot" who put "rule of law above the interests of the president."

Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.), the closest thing the committee has to a White House proxy, had a different view. He called Dean "a convicted felon" who is trying to sell a book.

The Texan's ferocity appeared to stun senators of both parties. "Let it all hang out," said Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), the chairman. Cornyn left the session, never to return.

Feingold, calling Dean "courageous," protested that Cornyn "basically did a hit-and-run on our witness."

Dean's presence had the result Feingold sought: linking Bush's actions to Nixonian abuses. Before long, everybody was partying like it was 1973.

"This is not Watergate," pro-Bush witness Lee Casey felt compelled to argue.

Dean, acknowledging he came "from the dark side," countered that he had "more experience firsthand than anybody might want in what can go wrong and how a president can get on the other side of the law."

Like Nixon, Bush was trying to "push the envelope" of presidential power, Dean said. Under questioning from Specter, he added: "Had a censure resolution been issued about some of Nixon's conduct long before it erupted to the degree and the problem that came, it would have been a godsend."

Dean was getting under the skin of Sen. Orrin Hatch. "You don't know whether [Bush] has violated any existing statute," the Utah Republican challenged him.

Dean argued that Bush was "seeking to build presidential power for the sake of presidential power."

"You have no evidence of that," Hatch shot back.

"I have lots of evidence of that," Dean replied.

"I don't think you have any," the senator maintained.

About that time, an aide handed Graham a note saying his lunch date had canceled. The senator settled in for some intensive questioning of the witness.

The South Carolinian kept trying to prove that Watergate was different from the current wiretapping flap, in which administration lawyers insist Bush's actions are legal. But Graham kept getting tangled up in the facts -- and Dean made sport of the senator's ignorance.

"Senator, if you let me answer, I will give you some information you might be able to use," he suggested to Graham.

Dean instructed Graham that his "assumption that Nixon had somehow ordered a break-in . . . is just dead wrong."

"He condoned it," Graham argued.

"He did not know about it, Senator. It's hard to condone something you don't know about."

Graham muttered something away from his microphone and took a sip of water.

Feingold celebrated Dean's debating victory. "I'm very pleased that Mr. Dean finally had the chance to put on the record the history that he knows so well," he said, adding that Bush is making "one of the greatest attempts to dismantle our system of government that we have seen in the history of our country."

The Watergate references would not stop. Dean invoked Sam Ervin. Feingold invoked John Mitchell. Specter looked at his watch. And Graham tried, one more time, to get his history straight.

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